According to the sacred stories of the Guugu Yimithirr people, the Rainbow Serpent resides in the twists and bends of the Wabalumbaal Birri, whose mouth opens onto the coral reef where, on the evening of June 10 1770, the HMS Endeavour ran aground.
The Waalumbaal Birri has been renamed the Endeavour River and it was on the south bank of that river, on the Waymbuurr clanland, in the tribal nation of the Guugu Yimithirr people, the first contact between Europeans and Australian Indigenous people came to pass.
The 7 weeks that James Cook and his men spent stranded has left several lasting legacies, the best known of which is the name of our national icon, “gangurru” or “kangaroo”. The encounter also brought together the threads of issues which still dominate disscussions of Indigenous-settler relations today: environmental care, reconciliation and cultural governance.
In recent years, the Gamba Gamba artists at the Hopevale Arts and Cultural Centre have, through their art, begun to consider their relationship with the narrative surrounding James Cook, and their post-colonial history. As well as recounting stories of their own personal and family histories, the women’s artwork also explores the relationship that the Guugu Ymithirr people have with the wildlife that surrounds them and landscape that they inhabit. Cultural practices are inherently linked with land management, and particularly sustainable fishing and population control of reef species. For the Gamba Gamba, the importance of this relationship is highlighted by the cause of the first conflicts between the sailors of the Endeavour and the Indigenous population of Cape York.
Initially, the relationship between Indigenous Australians and Cook’s men started peacefully. The Bama wanted to be helpful to Cook and his men, and in return for assisting them with finding food, and wood with which to mend the ship the sailors attempted to trade goods – such as cloth. Gifts which, Cook noted in his diary, that while they were accepted were swiftly discarded by a people who had no use for them.
This peace was interrupted when the sailors caught 12 turtles and loaded them on board Cook’s ship to be butchered. Cook’s men did not understand the laws of the Indigenous people, for whom turtles are a sacred and protected species. The Indigenous people of the land were aware that they had to keep the population of the slow-breeding sea turtles preserved – to take only what they needed to ensure the continuation of the food source for the years to come. Upon finding out that the sailors had been hoarding turtles, a group of Aboriginal men boarded Cook’s ship and began to try and rescue the turtles, throwing them over the sides of the ship. This resulted in days of violence and conflict – during which time the Bama were shot at and wounded by Cook and his men, and in retaliation, they set fire to the European camp. A highlight of this retaliation, says Daisy Hamlot, is that in setting fire to the camp, some of the European’s clothes were burned, and they were chased, naked down the beach.
For the artists of the Hopevale Art Centre the theft of those turtles 12 years ago, and the violence that followed because of the Bama’s attempts to free them is representative of the way that Indigenous land management practices continue to be ignored today, in the interests of greed and profit-making. The artist’s work frequently features scenes of the beach, the reef and the animals that live within.
Cook and his men made mistakes because they did not listen and did not understand the laws, and the artists feel that since that time, nothing much has changed. The rules themselves are easy to understand though - if you listen, says Gertie Deeral “Us bama, love to go out to the reef. We catch turtle, fish and dugong. It's a beautiful place. But we also want to be careful. We don't like it when too many turtles and dugong are killed. We need to look after them or we won't have any left. It worries me. Take one or two but only for special times. Don't go crazy and kill too many. Don't be greedy. Don't be wasteful.”
250 years ago, the violence escalated to the point of bloodshed, until one day a very old man – an elder and leader of the tribe, came forward holding forth a spear with a broken tip to show that his people lay down their weapons. He stood upon a rocky outcrop on the shore of the beach, and invited Cook to join him in a dialogue that for the Guugu Ymithirr represents the first reconciliation. In 1770 this moment of exchange, dialogue and understanding became the catalyst for both groups to overcome the challenges of the language and cultural divide between them. Today, the Gamba Gamba hope that similar discussion may provide an opportunity to enrich cultural and scientific understanding of the symbiotic relationship that the Guugu Yimithirr people have always shared with the sea; an understanding which may help to create an Australian nation that is equipped to face the growing challenge of climate change and a dying reef.